Race, the Gospel, and Valley Bible Church

Yesterday, I preached a sermon at Valley Bible Church that describes my journey in thinking about race and the Gospel in our valley...and includes some challenges for a way forward in empathetic action. I thought it was worth posting my manuscript in order to further some of the conversations that have been happening over the past couple of days: 

Race, the Gospel, and Valley Bible Church

Most nights after I pray with my kids, I sing to them. It’s not a sweet sound, but they are sweet words! One of the songs in the routine is Amazing Grace, a hymn written by John Newton in the 18th century:

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now I’m found

Was blind but now I see.”

Sweet, powerful words about the effects of believing the Gospel, words written by a former slave trader. John Newton was a captain of slave ships, bringing young Africans as property to be bought and sold and used. He was introduced to Jesus and believed the Gospel and slowly his eyes began to be opened. He left his vocation, became a pastor, and eventually became a spiritual advisor to William Wilberforce and many in the abolition movement in England. Just before his death he was overjoyed to hear the news that the slave trade had been abolished by parliament.

When Newton wrote about amazing grace, he knew he didn’t deserve it. He was a wretch, one who was complicit in the evils of racism. And when he wrote that he was blind, he didn’t just mean that he was blind to God’s goodness or presence or even to the truthfulness of the Gospel of Christ. All of those, yes. But he, wretched man that he was, was also blind to the sins of slavery, to the image of God in all its dignity and value and beauty in the Africans aboard his ship.

Grace in the Gospel powerfully opened his eyes and he would never be the same.

This morning is not a typical VBC sermon. I won’t be working through a text in an expository series. This is my testimony as one of your pastors, a short story about my eyes being opened over the past few weeks, followed by an apology, a promise, a plea, and a hope.

Like many of you, I watched the footage from the Alton Sterling and Philando Castille deaths and felt the visceral pain that comes with witnessing that kind of violence. But I began to do what I did every other time I watched similar footage or read similar reports, whether it be Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or whoever, I resolved to wait for the facts to come out before I made an informed decision about what happened. And I am sure I would have soon stopped caring—like I had in each previous event—and settled into an informed but emotionally removed opinion about them.

But then I read parts of three different letters written by three different men in the same day and something changed.

First I read something Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “It may well be that we have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘wait on time’.”

That hit me. I was, after all, one of the good people. And I was silent and indifferent, paralyzed by the complexity of race and violence and injustice in our country.

Then I was reading a letter written by one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written a few months before he would be arrested by the Gestapo for his defense of the Jews in Germany: “Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.”

That hit me in the same place. I had been waiting and looking on for a while, and Bonhoeffer put his finger on exactly why that was: I wasn’t suffering. We are called to sympathy and action not by our own sufferings but by the sufferings of our brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.

I felt as though I had been worked over and my guard was down as I was reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians later that morning. The first ten verses in chapter two contain some of the most powerful descriptions about how amazing grace is and how wretched we are. We are by nature enemies of God, and yet he came to us and died for us and united himself with us in Christ. This is such good news!

It is such good news that it doesn’t stop with changing our relationship with God but extends to our relationship with fellow man: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:14-16).

Jesus came to kill the hostility. To kill it, crushing it with his crushed body. First he, God in the flesh, kills the hostility in our hearts toward God—this is what makes it amazing grace! We were not merely blind, but were hostile enemies and he came for us and he sought us and he died for us.

But also the hostility between Jew and Gentile, black and white, neighbor and neighbor. The dividing wall between races was broken by the broken body of our savior.

I went to sleep Thursday night thinking about all of this, tossing and turning and praying off and on throughout the night. I woke up Friday to the horrific news of Dallas, of more hostility, more violence, more deaths, and five more families grieving too soon. And I thought: no more waiting and watching, no more buying into the media narrative that to move toward my black brothers and sisters with sympathy must mean taking a side against the police, no more denying that there are fragile racial fault-lines in our nation and in our valley that need action.

Since that morning I have grabbed coffee or a meal with a handful of black friends, some who are members of our church, to ask how they are feeling. Rather than wait and watch from a distance, I wanted to move toward them with sympathy and become a learner. What I learned moved me. I heard fear and sadness and confusion and stories of racism. I heard their experience with things like “I don’t really think of you as black,” which begs the question, what do you have in mind when you think of a black man?! Of hearing “you’re pretty for a black girl,” or “you’re well spoken for a black guy.” Of slurs shouted from passing cars, threats made to families, purses clutched tight…basically of things I never notice or have to worry about.

I have become convinced that I must stop waiting and watching. Working for biblical justice and peace are complex things, and I don’t have all the answers (or hardly any perhaps?), but there are people in our community who are hurting and we must follow our savior in moving toward those who suffer.

And so, I want to offer an apology, a promise, a plea, and a hope.

An apology: As one of your pastors I am sorry for my inactivity; for waiting and watching too long. We ought to have stepped into this earlier. We ought to have reached out to our black members and neighbors and neighboring churches with sympathy. We are sorry for not leading the way in bearing each other’s burdens and sorrows.

A promise: We promise to become a place and people of peace. We promise to continue to hold up the Gospel of Jesus as the exclusive place of eternal hope and justice. We promise to work to become one of the safest and most charitable places in our valley for conversations about race and the Gospel and the culture of our valley. We promise to work to become a safe and welcoming place for our black neighbors to belong to and worship. We promise to move toward our neighboring black churches and pastors to promote friendships and to create opportunities for conversation and prayer together.

A Plea: Root out any racism hidden in your heart and repent of it. Before you assume there isn’t any to root out, remember that racism is a sin and one of the most insidious characteristics of sin is how it hides behind and below other things, just out of sight. Consider the most patient person you know and ask yourself if you think they ever struggle with impatience, with selfishness. Of course they do, because selfishness remains in the room even when it doesn’t reign on the throne. Root it out and bring it into the light of the Gospel and turn away from it, decide not to feed it or give it room to breathe.

Next I want to plead with you to disengage from social media debates. There can be a place in social media for working toward justice, but facebook comment sections are not that place. Social media debates never soften hearts and open minds, they calcify opinions and bring out the worst in us. They separate ideas from people and so we say things we would never say if we were looking a friend in the eyes. Just stop. If you disagree with something someone posts use your phone the old-fashioned way and call them. Or, even better, take them to coffee and have a conversation. Remember that the right way to debate someone is with charity and with the aim of moving together towards the truth, not to win at all cost.

In the same vein, I want to plead with you to stop being more shaped by the media than by the Scriptures and by flesh and blood people. We must reject any media narrative that tells us there is a villain to hate, a flesh and blood person or people (black or white or blue) to hate. We don’t fight against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. We don’t wage a physical war with swords but a spiritual war with co-suffering and prayer. We want a target that easy to see and strike, and we swing our swords wildly like Peter in the madness of the dark garden betrayal, but Jesus picks his accusers’ severed ear off the dewy grass and puts the man back together because his way wasn’t the way of the sword but of loving enemies and bearing burdens and sorrows.

My final plea is that we would engage charitably with flesh and blood people. Let’s make charitable judgments about people, assuming the absolute best about them. Let’s begin conversations with our black friends and neighbors about their experience being black in the New River Valley. Let’s reach out to our friends and neighbors with different ethnic backgrounds and ask how we can better love them, better make them feel welcome in our homes and our church.

Finally, A Hope: W.B. Yeats wrote a powerful poem just after WWI titled “The Second Coming,” in which he captured much of the same sentiment we are feeling in our nation now, especially in one line: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

He was wrong. Yes, things fall apart. But the center will hold because Christ is the center. He is the Lord of history. He will come again to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end. He will vanquish evil once and for all. Cornelius Plantiga puts it well: “Evil rolls across the ages, but so does good. Good has its own momentum. Corruption never wholly succeeds. Creation is stronger than sin and grace is stronger still…human sin is stubborn, but not so stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so willing to suffer to win its way.”

Let’s be a people who hope in the power of the amazing grace of God shown to us and given to us in Christ, who hope in the coming kingdom in which people from every tribe and tongue—a kaleidoscope of colors!—will live together in harmony and peace and eternal happiness. Who hope in a King was willing to be crushed in order to crush the dividing wall of hostility and who will wipe away all his friends’ tears with his nail scarred hands as he makes all things new.

Let’s hope in him as we move toward our neighbor with sympathy and action and the Gospel of His amazing grace. 

Following Jesus with sympathy and action

"We are not lords, but instruments in the hand of the Lord of history...we are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ's large-heartedness, by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered."

So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter from 1943, just months before he would be arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in a prison in Tegel. Earlier in the letter he says, "the great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts," which was true in Germany in 1943, just as it is true in America in 2016, just as it was true one dark afternoon on a hill called Golgotha outside of Jerusalem in the first century.

Evil is a havoc-playing masquerade, an empty parasite feeding on the good, true, and beautiful. But evil isn't the last word.

Jesus is the large-hearted Lord of history.

Jesus "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6-8).

Jesus suffered for and with those who suffer, no matter their race or vocation.

Jesus is the last word, the Word made flesh who stands ready for the consummation of history, where he will wipe away every tear and make all things new (Rev 21:1-5). 

Jesus is the king of a multiethnic, kaleidoscopal kingdom which hopes for the moment when we feel his scarred palms press against our wet cheeks and hear him say "welcome home."  

Our churches must step into this evil day (Eph 5:16) with the bright hope of the gospel, the good news that the dividing wall of hostility between us and God and between "us and them" has been crushed by the crushed body of our savior (Eph 2:11-21). We need men and women who reject passivity and bear the sufferings of our neighbors (Eph 4:2). We need to reject narratives that give us villains to hate, that creates an "us" and a "them." We need to stand with our black neighbors, affirming their full dignity and worth as men and women made in God's image. We need to stand with our local police officers who also bear the image of God. The mere fact that those two sentences seem so discordant together is a sad testimony to the masquerade of evil all around us. We must not give in. No more "waiting and looking on." It's time to follow our savior and move towards our neighbor with gospel fueled large-heartedness. 

The eyes and the heart

The sunrise through the eyes:

As you sit on your front porch you see a soft orb levitating above the mountains. The sky above is light gray and becomes a muted orange and pale blue as it nears the horizon line. White clouds are scattered all around. There is enough light to bring detail to the trees and separate them from each other. The grass is wet with dew. You take a sip of hot coffee.

The sunrise through the eyes of the heart:

Beauty! Soft, piercing beauty. Orange and blue run together, moving in and out of each other as they drive away the drab gray of pre-dawn. Wispy white clouds fill the sky, lit up from beneath like a hundred little campfires against a hundred chalky cliffs. The trees begin to take shape as the shadows sharpen. The grass sparkles with refracted light. The smell of your coffee breaks the spell—how long have you been sitting here?!—and you are comforted by the familiar taste as you consider how “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” and you try to figure out what it means that you get to participate in such beauty and glory.

The eyes see facts, the heart sees truth.

Luke tells a story in chapter twenty-four of his gospel that illustrates this well. Two of Jesus’ followers were making a sad, seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Sad because their hope that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel was crushed when they saw him crucified. They were moping along discussing the facts when Jesus plays the most remarkable practical joke in history on them. He pulls his hood down low and begins to walk with them and asks them why they are sad. Their eyes are kept from recognizing him, and they explain the facts behind their dejection. Jesus then leads them in what I assume is the best bible study ever—pointing out the truth behind the facts of the Scriptures. He shows them the truth, that suffering was always the plan, and that the redeemer's suffering would lead to glory.

We find out later that during this bible study with the risen, hidden, Jesus their hearts were already beginning to see: “did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) Finally, when he leads them in a communion meal, their eyes are opened and the truth that their hearts saw and the facts that their eyes saw connected and they saw him…just in time for him to vanish from their sight!

I think Paul had this in mind when he wrote of his continual prayer that his friends in Ephesus would have “the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you…” (Eph 1:18). How do we know the hope we have in Him? How do we know the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us? How do we know Him?

Must we, like his disciple Thomas, see with our eyes the facts of his nail-marked hands and sword-pierced side (John 20:25)? Or can we be those, “who have not seen and yet have believed,” (John 20:29) and are called blessed?

Eyes see facts, hearts see truth. May God flood our hearts with light that we may see and know the risen Jesus; that we may recognize Him walking alongside us. And may we become people who aim the truth of the gospel at the hearts of our neighbors as we introduce them to Him.  

Paul's ministry model

In his farewell/commencement speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:18-38, Paul lays out some of the aspects of his pastoral ministry:

Humility: "serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials"

Boldness: "I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable"

Public preaching: "teaching you in public," testifying "of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ...to the gospel of the grace of God," "proclaiming the kingdom," "declaring the whole counsel of God"

Soul care: "teaching...from house to house," "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God," "for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears,"

Hard work: "I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak"

Aim: "But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus"

Trust in God's word: "And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified"

Affection: "And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again"

Paul's grand missionary efforts often overshadow his on-the-ground pastoral ministry. Acts 20 gives us some insight into how he spent three years as a church planter in Ephesus.

May the church be blessed to have more pastors who follow this model; hardworking pastors who trust God's word and love God's people and preach, teach, and work for their good.